Using State-of-the-Art Technology
Without mass notification systems, the silence can be deafening and fatal.
- By William F. Donahue IV
- Jan 01, 2017
Ever since there have been buildings, there has been a need to alert people on how to get out of them safely in the event of an emergency. Three hundred and fifty years ago, the prime danger was fire, which was the case when London was leveled by a conflagration that destroyed 13,000 buildings. Remarkably, only a few people perished as the warning system of the day, a ringing bell and people yelling out warnings in the street, proved sufficient. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire leveled the same number of buildings, but the death toll topped 300, the difference being that Chicago lacked a clear means of communication, coupled with more complex building structures. In short, there was no clear direction on a means to escape. Even when fire alarms became the norm in the 1900s, the piercing screech and flashing lights told you there was a fire, but not where the fire was, where the exits were, or even if you were heading into the inferno.
In today's society, a world forever shaped by events such as 9/11 and Katrina, fire is not the only peril facing occupants of buildings, whether they are schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, or office buildings. In particular, school shootings like those at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook cry out for a more sophisticated emergency communication system to allow those in harm's way to be alerted as to the precise nature of the danger and how to safely escape from it. Even as the PA system at Sandy Hook Elementary was crackling with gunfire and screaming, those in the school were still without necessary information, such as where is the shooter, how many shooters are there, and what is the safest exit route or next action?
The ability to communicate real-time information in the case of a dangerous situation, to as many people as possible, via different technological routes such as voice via speakers, signage, email, texts, large loudspeakers, computer monitors, and phone systems, is known as the Mass Notification System (MNS). The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code provides the latest safety provisions required to meet society's changing fire detection, signaling, and emergency communications demands. In addition to the core focus on fire alarm systems, this code now includes requirements for mass notification systems used for weather emergencies; terrorist events; biological, chemical, and nuclear emergencies; and other threats. The code covers the application, installation, location, performance, inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems, supervising station alarm systems, public emergency alarm reporting systems, fire warning equipment and emergency communications systems (ECS), and their components.
The Evolution of MNS
The genesis of the Mass Notification System as we know it today can be traced to June 25, 1996, when terrorists exploded a fuel truck adjacent to a housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 servicemen and wounding 372 others. A year later, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen issued the Khobar Towers Report. This document concluded that there were lapses in force protection, no effective alarm systems, no emergency communications capabilities, and that damage and loss of life could have been minimized if there had been a plan in place to respond to the threat.
By 2002, the document that brought emergency communications to the forefront of modern building design emerged. Known as Unified Facilities Criteria 4-021-01: Design and Operation of Mass Notification Systems, this document establishes minimum requirements for emergency communications by way of the building’s fire alarm systems while recognizing their inability to communicate with people through voice in the event of non-fire emergencies. This prompted the NFPA to pick up the pace to develop new standards for Mass Notification Systems, and as a result, manufacturers of voice evacuation systems now have to address the task of producing systems to meet today’s potential mass notification needs.
It's easy to understand why fire alarm systems are inherently the right choice for use in mass notification. Fire alarm systems are code-driven and regulated. The circuitry is fully supervised, and the systems are periodically tested using NFPA guidelines. The rules, testing procedures, and installation practices are already established, so fire alarm companies are able to hit the road running. Also, the first responders are already familiar with the fire alarm equipment. Both the government's and NFPA's actions reinforce the fact that the core of MNS exists, in many cases, in a building's fire alarm system.
Perhaps nowhere has the need for MNS become more in the forefront of the public's mind than the recent rash of shootings in our schools. Aside from the aforementioned Sandy Hook tragedy, which claimed 26 lives, the horrific shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, which claimed the lives of 32 students, is still an open wound when it comes to the mention of Mass Notification Systems—even though it appears that, for the most part, the system worked well.
Reports are that within six minutes after a VT security guard was shot, university officials had sent an emergency alert to students and faculty stating shots had been fired on campus and to stay inside. The system allowed university officials to send alerts via a number of media, including phone, email, text messages, desktop alerts, campus loudspeakers, and digital signage. They also were able to alert students and faculty via any computer or mobile device with access to the Internet. Over the course of the afternoon, the university sent a total of six alerts with its mass notification system, dubbed VT Alerts, to keep students and faculty informed of the situation until the all-clear was given at 4:30 p.m.
"All the systems and all the things we planned to do worked extremely well," Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said at a news conference following the shooting. "Sometimes technology doesn't cooperate with you, but today it functioned extremely well."
It is felt that one of the most effective methods of warning students of a potential danger is texting to a cell phone, since most college students see their phone as an additional appendage. However, such a system proves ineffective at the K-12 level, where the text messaging option is geared toward parents rather than students, because most school policies state that students can’t use cell phones or have them turned on during the school day.
In many cases during an emergency situation, normal means of communications such as cell phones, land lines, and the Internet may be overtaxed or completely incapacitated. Using a system that is reserved for emergency situations, like the traditional fire alarm system, decreases the time required to notify staff, students, or any occupant of a building or visitor to an area. This type of system is considered one of the highest levels of a comprehensive mass notification system and today is one of the least utilized.
Many fire installation experts say they're frustrated that school officials and building owners in general don't realize how valuable an emergency communications system/mass notification system can be in situations until it is too late. After all, adding a mass notification component to a fire system, particularly if the system already has speakers, is a pretty simple job. Yet many school officials or property owners, not just those at Sandy Hook, are unaware such an important option exists.
The industry as a whole is just beginning to learn about these systems. Unfortunately, most school officials and property owners, and the engineers who design fire alarm systems for them, are not familiar with these systems, how they work, and how they should be implemented. This may be due to the many different technologies that can be integrated to provide a complete ECS or MNS system. In many cases, technologies and systems that were considered to be part of campus security and fall under their direction can or need to be integrated with systems such as the fire alarm system, which is considered to be part of buildings and systems in a typical campus setting. Mix this in with the fact that the best way to interconnect all of these pieces would be through a computer network that is in another department, budget, and management group. All of these departments operate with their own valid concerns, budgets, responsibilities, and groups of engineers they consult with. The bottom line is that there is, currently, not a single answer to a true mass notification system. It requires interconnection and communication between a variety of systems.
Using State-of-the-Art Technology
There are many new devices that are available that can integrate with existing and new fire alarm systems that can convert or create a very reliable MNS system. One unique example is a small device similar to an exit sign that either flashes silently or makes noise and delivers text messages with instructions on how to react to the particular threat. Unlike traditional fire alarms, where the natural response is to exit the building to get to safety, the MNS message may be to seek cover based on the existing threat. Unlike the traditional fire alarm with the red pull station that people around the world are familiar with, the pull station of the future includes a choice of fire emergency or shooter emergency, among others, providing the appropriate notification response.
Installation of a Mass Notification System is designed to save lives, a comprehensively designed system can increase the number of lives saved. It can be as complex as a system that reaches all areas of a campus inside and out, to a single sign on the highway that alerts thousands of motorists to a breakdown up ahead or a fire in a tunnel. It's all about system survivability, reliability, and reaching the largest group possible in the shortest amount of time. And failure to install one can not only cost lives, but also raise the possibility of serious financial liability.
It's been reported that an attorney, on behalf of a student who survived the Newtown, Conn., shooting, is bringing a suit against the state of Connecticut for $100 million, stating that the Board of Education, Department of Education, and state education commissioner all failed to protect the child "from foreseeable harm," including formulating and implementing an effective student safety emergency response plan.
When Paul Revere alerted the colonists about an impending attack from a foreign enemy by flashing lanterns and riding horseback through the streets yelling at the top of his lungs, in many ways this was the 18th century equivalent of a Mass Notification System. Sadly, in today's world, where our attackers don’t arrive in wooden boats but in our own fuel-heavy jet planes, and the enemy isn’t always a foreign stranger but the boy who lives just down the street playing video games, we all need to be protected by the state-of-the-art technology that exists today. Because to be in a building without a Mass Notification System when something goes terribly wrong, the silence can not only be deafening, it can be fatal.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.